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A capital idea

Move government out of Delhi to disperse its political,business and cultural wealth

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
October 27, 2012 12:23:15 am

Move government out of Delhi to disperse its political,business and cultural wealth

The idea to shift the capital out of Delhi to a faraway place strikes a chord with those who feel that the place is now so tainted by power and corruption that the only solution is its transfer to an inaccessible village. Every day is a grim reminder of the sheer ugliness of India’s capital,the monumental scale of its nefarious operations — political backlash,class wars,battles for utilities — and all the expected clashes brought on by sheer numbers and densities of people,closely packed and defined by greed.

The dissolution of the capital is a serious idea whose time has come.

When the British set up Calcutta as India’s first city,it was for mercantile reasons. The city’s accessibility through a large port and across the sea allowed goods to be transported to consumers in England. The convenience of an urban centre to lend administrative credibility to a massive trade operation was both a necessity and a burden,but Calcutta performed the function admirably. Later,when the Empire altered its commercial roots to acquire a larger political stake in India,the shift of the capital to Delhi took on a different hue. The grand vision of the subjugation of a people was realised in monumentalism,domed and classical architecture and grand axial symmetries in planning layouts.

Almost a century after the Great Durbar and the grandiose colonial vision,the pantomime of greatness and excessive power has become a sad satirical reality. Except for Russia and its East European satellites,nowhere does government makes its presence more physically felt than in the Indian capital. Rashtrapati Bhawan,the prime minister’s cordoned residence,the diplomatic enclave,ministers’ bungalows,bureaucrats flats,ministry offices,foreign service apartments,naval staff quarters,services headquarters,not to mention the mile-upon-mile of public housing,chipped,peeling and smudged — bureaucratic citadels,wasteful and degraded — that are the visible public face of India. Everything about the Delhi skyline is a reminder of the eternal presence of the government.

Throughout the world there are examples of capital cities that have remained only minor places of political culture and have let their larger metros develop into cultural and business centres. Look westward and you will see how little a city’s urbanism is affected by bureaucratic presence. Canada’s capital Ottawa has a small town feel,a minor European streetscape of horse carriages and cobble stones. The cultural component of Paris far overwhelms its political importance; in London,the prime minister’s home is just another door on Downing Street. Even Washington DC — designed on axial symmetries similar to Delhi — has the urban atmosphere of a stretched fairground where politics survives along with museums and galleries. No special bungalows for congressmen,no housing for the services,no architectural privileges for bureaucrats,no party headquarters. Politics is just another presence in the ordinary scheme of the city.

Delhi,however,is a city of overlapping influences where industry,politics,business,finance,culture — are now all part of the same decision-making process. Business heads influence economic policy decisions; bureaucrats are selected to head art museums and national science institutions; police officers are transferred for not towing unstated administrative directives. These are all the shadowy undercurrents of excessive and uncomfortable proximities,where Indian political and economic culture today remains trapped in colonial clothes.

Moreover,the capital today has become an unfortunate handicap to a nation no longer governed by a Centre (and often not governed at all). As it stands,many states pay little heed to Delhi. Uttar Pradesh,Gujarat,West Bengal,Bihar and Tamil Nadu among others are serious individual players,with great veto powers,often rendering the Centre ineffective. The dissolution of the capital may be a first step towards an eventual devolution of power to these or other smaller entities.

Of course,the mere transfer of the capital from Delhi to another place would result in a recongregation of the old guard in the new place. Separation of those who govern from those who run business and industry,from those that make policy and economic decisions,and those who administer art and culture,would return responsibility where it belongs — to individual and institutional choice. Such a separation would effectively break the deep nexus between politics,real estate,the bureaucracy and business.

How then do you disperse the political,business and cultural wealth of Delhi? Some in the art world favour a move to make Bhopal the cultural capital. For its central location,some suggest Nagpur for political administration. Yet others,Mumbai as fiscal capital and Cochin for the armed services. Whatever the new locations,a number of smaller capitals would be far preferable to one unwieldy one. And though it’s hard to predict the precise character of a dissolved capital or indeed the spirit of its new smaller avatars,the mere wish for an altered perception of today’s grim political life would be enough to make the experiment worthwhile.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect

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